The 14 July is the French national day, known as la fête nationale or le quatorze juillet. It’s the day France celebrates the beginning of the French Revolution, when on 14 July 1789 the people of Paris stormed the prison known as the Bastille (in the English speaking world the day is referred to as Bastille Day). It’s a big day, a public holiday where the main event is a march past along the Champs Élysées attended by the President, and all over France firework displays and public dances take place.
The biggest firework display on 14 July in the Aude is in Carcassonne. At 10.25 pm the street lights are extinguished and at 10.30 pm fireworks are lit among the ramparts of La Cité. The show is watched by a crowd of 700,000 people, most of whom have been pouring into Carcassonne since the morning to find a good viewing spot on the banks of the river Aude. The sight of the citadel lit up by 100,000 euros worth of fireworks is one worth waiting for.
I’ve never actually made it to the Champs Élysées or Carcassonne on 14 July but I have made it to the rather more modest march past and firework display that happen in Castelnaudary on 13 July. Castelnaudary is only 34 kilometres from Carcassonne and so pragmatically holds its fête nationale celebrations on 13 July to enable people to go to the events in both places. It also has the advantage of being the home of the 4th Regiment of the Foreign Legion. Early in the evening of 13 July the soldiers gather in the place de la République waiting in ranks until they are given the order to begin the march. They lead the way down the cours de la République past the locals who turn out in force to watch. Following the soldiers come the police, the sailors and finally the fire service engines sounding their alarms. The engines go round two or three times, apparently because the occupants greatly enjoy waving to their friends along the way.
After that the crowds move to the Grand Bassin to watch the firework display. The Bassin is the biggest piece of open water on the Canal du Midi and the fireworks start from a boat in the middle of it. There’s a small island on the Bassin that has now become a bird sanctuary. A few years ago a stray firework set fire to the vegetation on the island which rapidly went up in flames. In my ignorance I thought it was a spectacular part of the display. Fortunately the fire was soon put out, there was no lasting damage and all the birds returned.
Of course the bars and restaurants in town are open until the small hours and do great business. The Foreign Legion soldiers are replaced by free bands and dancing in the place de la République. It may not be Paris or Carcassonne but a good time is had by all.